Ecumenical and inter-faith relations.


In my religious ancestry my father was Catholic from a mixed marriage because his mother was Catholic and had him baptised. She died when he was 8 years old. He and his brother were reared by a childless Catholic aunt also in a mixed marriage. I only ever met Grandfather once. My mother, from a Presbyterian family, became Catholic when engaged to my father so my birth into a Catholic family depended on a lot of humanly unlikely events.

As a young priest from 1964, I was always fascinated by the other churches and sought occasions to meet clergy and join fraternals. Vatican II made that more accessible.

On 24 February 2002 we celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the installation of my predecessor Bishop Thomas McCabe as the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Wollongong. One of the speakers, Fr Pat Kenna, quoted a local person’s reminiscence of the period, which is relevant to this focus group.

“Back in 1952 we Catholics were a very difficult lot to get on with. We did not compromise at all. Catholics were forbidden to take part in non-Catholic religious services. Permission from the Bishop could be sought if you had a very good excuse, like family, but not for a friend. And this included weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Many Protestant people were very hurt by this attitude of ours.

Social life also had its difficulties. For example, the Wollongong Hospital Ball, always on a Friday evening, would have little or no provision for non-meat eaters. What might have began as good-natured ribbing about this would often degenerate into a bad-tempered display.

ANZAC Day commemorations brought these divisions into dreadful prominence annually. Catholics were not allowed to attend the Dawn Service to honour fallen friends or relatives. We could take part in the march but at the end we had to draw aside and not enter the Showground or Town Hall for the Combined Service.”


A) Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) 21 November 1964

“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council”. (1)

“The Church, then, God’s only flock, like a standard lifted on high for the nations to see, ministers the Gospel of peace to all humankind.

For those who believe in Christ and have been properly baptised are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church”. (2)

“All who have been justified by faith in baptism are incorporated into Christ, they therefore have a right to be called Christians” (3) (Baptism the link). The Church is not divided – we Christians are! Despite our divisions we are still in communion one with the other because we are baptised into the one Body of Christ.

(This is a new step and it was a big step in 1964.)“The separated churches have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the existing attitudes Catholic Church.” (3) (Vatican II challenged towards other Churches and recognised there is already some communion with them.)

“This sacred Council therefore exhorts all the Catholic faithful to recognise the “signs of the times” (John XXIII expression), and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism” (4)

“Little by little as the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion are overcome, all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into the unity of the one and only Church… This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church…”(4) (While this may seem a “tad arrogant”, in fact it is quite a transforming step, a breakthrough, because many of the significant elements of unity are also to be found in other communities.)

“Primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and done in the Catholic household itself…”(4) (not a return to the past but our Church reforming itself).

Fr Thomas Stransky (on Staff at the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity) wrote in 1965, “The 1964 Decree on Ecumenism gives a clear and authoritative decision on the future position of the Church in relation to non-Catholic Christians”.

“The decree, which received the overwhelming approval of the Second Vatican Council in detailed voting, tries to correct four major misunderstandings about the grace-filled movement towards Christian unity”.

1. “There is not a Catholic ecumenism …We are witnessing today one Christian movement, and each church is asked to contribute, according to its conscience, whatever can bring about, among all Christians, that full invisible and visible unity that Christ has willed for His Church. The cause of Christian unity is not best served as it had been in the past: by the traditional refusal of serious contact with other Christian communities. The lack of such contact is …an added obstacle; it perpetuates and strengthens mutual ignorance and apathy…We wish to be one in order that, through our united witness in word and action the world may believe.”

2. “Ecumenism is a dynamic movement, not the static stance of Church to Church. The conciliar decree (N.4) provisionally describes the ecumenical situation in the mid-1960s. “Those activities and initiatives which, according to the various needs of the Church and opportune occasions, are started or organised for the fostering of unity among Christians”.

3 “Catholic contribution to Christian unity is not confined to specialists. Ecumenical work is the faithful service of the whole Church …how we can better determine and respect what makes non-Catholic Christians our brothers and sisters and how we can help heal the tragic wounds that make them separated”.

4. “The Catholic involvement in the ecumenical movement presupposes “the continuing reform” (conversion) of the Church to enable the Church to reform itself”.

Pope Paul VI in his first encyclical said, “Let us stress what we have in common rather than what divides us.”

B) Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) 7 December 1965

(Not superficial human optimism – God’s hope – joy in the love of God) “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time … are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts …” (Christians are a gift – we are part of the whole world – the feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history. (1)

“The world, which the Council has in mind, is the world of women and men, the entire human family seen in its total environment ” (defines world). (2)

“…enter into dialogue with it about all these various problems, throwing the light of the Gospel on them, and supplying humanity with the saving resources which the church has received …” (Gift of Christianity – saving resources) (3)

The Condition of Humanity in the World Today

“In every age, the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel,…it should be able to answer the ever recurring questions which people ask about the meaning of this present life and of the life to come, and how one is related to the other” (we live in a period of tensions, “Signs of the times” gift of discernment) (4)

“Ours is a new age of history … real social and cultural transformation whose repercussions are felt at the religious level also“. (4)

The Constitution on the Church (LG 1-4) and the Decree on Ecumenism (UR 2) situate the mystery of the Church within the whole mystery of God’s wisdom and goodness which draws not only the whole human family, but also the whole of creation, into unity with God. Ecumenism is seen as part of this.

C) Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) 28 October 1965

Note: Inter-religious dialogue is between Christians and other world religions (Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, and Hindu) whereas ecumenism is dialogue with other Christians towards further unity.

“In our day, when people are drawing more closely together and the bonds of friendship between different peoples are being strengthened, the church examines more carefully its relations with non-Christian religions.” (para 1)

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” (para 2)

“Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”

“A high regard for the Muslims” (para 3)

“The Jews remain very dear to God, …God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made.”

Abraham is the key to common ground between these 3 monotheistic faiths – Islam, Jewish, and Christian.

“It is true that the Church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed … all must take care, lest in catechising or in preaching the Word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ.

“deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays or anti-semitism levelled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”(4)

“The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or any harassment of them on the basis of their race, colour, condition in life or religion.” (5) (A lot of this is not well known among our people, this is our exciting gift to others. No other Church has such rich and inspiring documents.)


I will talk briefly on significant documents by which the Vatican’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, since 1988 called The Pontificial Council for Promoting Christian Unity, began to put into practice the thrust of the II Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism. You can then see where today’s practices came from. (Cardinal Bea was its leading ecumenist of this period, succeeded by Cardinal Willebrands, prior to Cardinal Cassidy and now Cardinal Kasper.)

Part 1 of the “Directory Concerning Ecumenical Matters” appeared in 1967 and dealt with:

1. Mandating the setting up of Diocesan Ecumenical Commissions and of National Bishops Committees for Ecumenism

2. Validity of baptism conferred by members of churches and ecclesial communities separated from us.

3. Spiritual ecumenism – the change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement (origins of the Week of Prayer for Unity).

4. Sharing of our spiritual heritage and resources (prayer in common, sharing in liturgical worship with Eastern Christians and with other separated brethren, sharing physical resources (chapels, sacred vessels etc).

A declaration on not celebrating the Eucharist in common (1970) showed up the pain of disunion in the very Sacrament of unity with Jesus and with one another.

Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter on “Mixed Marriages” (1970) was a significant reflection of the new understanding and respect for other churches and ecclesial communities when their members marry Catholics.

Part II of the “Directory Concerning Ecumenical Matters” dealt with ecumenism in higher theological education (1970).

“Reflection and Suggestions Concerning Ecumenical Dialogue” (1970) – its nature and aim, the bases, the conditions, method, subjects and form of the dialogue. We now participate in many official international and national theological dialogues.

“On admitting other Christians to Eucharistic Communion in the Catholic Church” (1972) – An effort to identify circumstances and conditions for limited intercommunion in special circumstances.

Bishops and representatives of diocesan ecumenical commissions met in Rome in 1972. Over the next few years, a working group produced (Reunis a Rome 1975) information to help bishops decide on what form diocesan ecumenical collaboration should take without losing harmony with the bonds of communion in faith and discipline which link the Catholic Church locally and universally:

Local ecumenism takes many forms and is subject to the bishop of the diocese. It involves sharing in prayer and worship, work on common Bible translations, joint pastoral care; eg, in hospitals and penal institutions, shared premises for worship in certain circumstances, collaboration in educational institutes, joint use of communication media (radio, TV, press), co-operation in the health-care field, response to national and international emergencies by raising and distributing funds ecumenically, relief of human need, social problems, social justice, community housing, social welfare, drug education. It also covered bilateral dialogues of theologians, meetings of Heads of Churches; joint working groups exploring fields of co-operation.

Here is described our participation in Councils of Churches which are servants of the Ecumenical Movement at State and National levels.

Remember we had never done any of this before – new territory for Catholics!

Relations with Anglicans

In 1966 Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury met Paul VI and inaugurated a serious dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. It included not only theological matters (scripture, tradition, and liturgy) but also matters of practical difficulty that each side felt. So ARCIC was born – the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission.

When Paul VI met Archbishop Coggan of Canterbury on 29 April 1977 he said “After 400 years of estrangement, it is now the third time in seventeen years that an Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope embrace in Christian friendship in the city of Rome. Since the visit of Archbishop Ramsey eleven years have passed, and much has happened in that time to fulfil the hopes then expressed and to cause us to thank God.” (Page 183 Flannery “Vatican II More Post Conciliar Documents” Vol II)

In 1982 John Paul II met Archbishop Runcie at Canterbury Cathedral “on the Eve of Pentecost to give thanks for the progress in the work of reconciliation between our Communions”.

Meanwhile ARCIC had produced joint statements on Eucharist, Ministry and Ordination and Authority in the Church.

The Pope and Archbishop Runcie’s statement included these significant words:

“Once more, then, we call on the bishops, clergy and faithful people of both our communions in every country, diocese and parish in which our faithful live side by side. We urge them all to pray for this work and to adopt every possible means of furthering it through their collaboration in deepening their allegiance to Christ and in witnessing to him before the world. Only by such collaboration and prayer can the memory of the past enmities be healed and our past antagonisms overcome.”

“Our aim is not limited to the union of our two communions alone, to the exclusion of other Christians, but rather extends to the fulfilment of God’s will for the visible unity of all his people. Both in our present dialogue, and in those engaged in by other Christians among themselves and with us, we recognise in the agreements we are able to reach, as well as in the difficulties which we encounter, a renewed challenge to abandon ourselves completely to the truth of the gospel.” (Page 188 Flannery Vol II)

The meetings and contacts between the present Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and John Paul II have intensified leading up to the Jubilee 2000. The setting up of the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity (Nov 2001) in addition to ARCIC seeks to bring our two communions into closer contact with representation from around the world focussing on the issues. Archbishop Bathersby of Brisbane is Co-Chair. In the last year he has visited and spoken at the Anglican General Synod and Peter Carnley as Primate, visited and addressed the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. In NSW Anglican and Catholic Bishops have an annual day together of fellowship, prayer and study. This also happens in most other states of Australia.

In 1993, the 1967 Ecumenical Directory was brought up-to-date and enlarged. This is an important document in which the Catholic understanding of Ecumenism is found.

A Bonus to the ecumenical movement is the Pope’s Encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” 1995 on “Commitment to Ecumenism” in which the Pope is reflecting on what this focus group is about: the Council’s teaching, the experience of the past 35 years and our seriousness about the quest for unity. Despite a slow entry into the ecumenical movement, the Catholic Church is now a strong leading and committed player.

In “The Coming of the Third Millennium” (1994) Pope John Paul II issued a provocative challenge, “The approaching end of the second millennium demands of everyone an examination of conscience and the promotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee of 2000, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium”. (34)

In “Beginning the New Millennium” (2001) the Pope reflected on the ecumenical dimension (12), “The ecumenical journey is certainly still difficult, and will perhaps be long, but we are encouraged by the hope that comes from being led by the presence of the Risen One and the inexhaustible power of his Spirit, always capable of new surprises.”

The 1998 Pontifical Council’s “The Ecumenical Dimension in the Formation of Those Engaged in Pastoral Work” is another important contribution.

In 1995 the Pope’s Apostolic Letter “Orientale Lumen” calls on Latin Catholics to get to know the Christian East so as to come to share and work better together – “the Church must breathe with both lungs, East and West”.

You must also have noticed the Popes striking ecumenical example in every country he visits – a meeting with representatives of other Christian ecclesial communities and interfaith leaders is always on the agenda. Remember the ecumenical and inter faith gathering in the Sydney Domain on the night before the Pope beatified Blessed Mary MacKillop (18 January 1995).

Here in Australia the Catholic Church is a member with 13 other Churches of the NCCA (Anglican Church, Antiochian Orthodox Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Assyrian Church of the East, Churches of Christ, Congregational Federation, Coptic Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Lutheran Church, Religious Society of Friends, Roman Catholic Church, Romanian Orthodox Church, Salvation Army, Syrian Orthodox Church and Uniting Church). In NSW every Catholic Diocese is a member of the NSW Ecumenical Council, with other States likewise.

The Catholic Church is an official dialogue partner in Australia with the Uniting Church (Mission of the Church – Inter-Church Marriages); the Lutheran Church (Episcope); and the Anglican Church (AUSTARCC) – on ARCIC Authority. Australian Consultation on Liturgy (ACOL) is a liturgical inter-church body where the focus is liturgy and the ecumenism is taken for granted. It goes back to the early seventies.


Internationally we have Catholic participants on ARCIC (Peter Cross), Methodist (Bishop Michael Putney), and International Anglican RC Commission for Unity (Bishop John Bathersby).

With Non-Christians

The Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Inter-Faith Relations is in an annual dialogue with the Executive Council of Australian Jewry for the past five years.

Through NCCA we participate in a Muslim Christian Dialogue. More so, since September 11, we cannot be out of conversation with these people.

The first three-way formal discussion between Jews, Christians and Muslims in Australia through NCCA was in April 2002.

The Bishops’ Committee with our consultants from around the country is currently working on guidelines to assist people participate in inter-faith dialogue.

Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue in Rome, will conduct a workshop in Canberra 8-10 October 2002 to assist Catholics involved in such dialogue to develop a common language, understanding and approach. We are working with non-Christians, not out to convert them!

Possibilities, Challenges and Questions

1) Jn 17.21 – “May they all be one that the world may believe”– will of Jesus, motive for ecumenism

2) Decree on Ecumenism No 1 – Unity and Evangelisation our credibility as Church rests on unity

3) Ut Unum Sint (99) – mission

4) Decree on Ecumenism No 3

The Church is not divided – we Christians are. Despite our divisions we are still in Communion one with another because we are baptised into the one Body of Christ.

Ut Unum Sint “The universal communion of Christians even though imperfect is a firm ecumenical conviction”.

Difficulties along the ecumenical way doctrinally have made the prospect of full visible communion seem less achievable to some whom then focus on more immediate goals.

Ut Unum Sint (78) the journey towards the necessary and sufficient visible unity in the communion of the one Church willed by Christ: one must not impose any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary.


Today Christians see each other, not as enemies or strangers, but as brothers and sisters. There is a greater awareness that we all belong to Christ through Baptism. (A common baptism certificate was designed by the Australian Consultation on Liturgy [ACOL] for ecclesial committees who accept each other’s Baptism – a washing in water with the Trinitarian Formula).

Today Christians work together for justice and peace.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity between Ascension and Pentecost has become a widespread tradition, but not yet in every parish.

Whereas once debates about Scripture influenced divisions, today Christians enjoy common translations of the Bible and many use a common Sunday Lectionary with the three-year cycle of readings.

These are signs of convergence in our approach to liturgy and sacraments.

There is greater willingness to appreciate the holiness and signs of renewal in one another’s Churches. (cf Great Jubilee Year – Unity in Martyrdom.)

Numerous historic meetings have taken place between recent popes and the leaders of other Christian churches in both the East and West. Given our history of division, some of these have been truly momentous occasions; significant agreements reached that have eliminated misunderstanding.

Ecumenism based on conversion to Jesus Christ – it’s a dialogue of conversion of change of heart.

What Ecumenism is not: not watering down of our beliefs, nor finding the lowest common denominator, nor a betrayal so as to be nice, nor a Protestant nor Catholic plot, nor uniformity!


1) People don’t know the principles of Ecumenical activity for Catholics.

2) Misunderstanding that intercommunion or Eucharistic hospitality promotes unity.

3) Ecumenism not seen to be important – people are apprehensive of it.

4) The rhetoric is beyond the reality.

5) A good ecumenist is a well-informed committed member of his/her denomination.

6) Since September 11, focus on inter-faith issues has taken priority. Yet this will never relieve Christians of our solemn concern for the Unity of Christ’s Church.



Participation of lay people in ecumenism at grass roots level has been an encouraging sign, particularly since the Vatican’s first Directory on Ecumenism appeared in 1967.

It was significant that the Second Vatican Council invited observers from other Christian communities.

The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity has been an inspired success forging collaboration / links with other ecumenical movements

on the international level, through the World Council of Churches (WCC)

at the national level through the National Council of Churches in Australia

at state level through the NSW Ecumenical Council, the Victorian Council of Churches, Queensland Churches Together, and similar bodies in South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

The encouraging progress with movements of prayer such as the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Taize Prayer groups and other ecumenical prayer initiatives.

From what was a late start because of a perceived reluctance of the Catholic Church to change, moving to a real acknowledgment and positive change, to the Catholic Church since Vatican II establishing the principles and the goals for its participating ecumenical movement.

Defining that unity does not mean uniformity.

Need for a focal point – the question of authority. This was addressed in ARCIC’s “The Gift of Authority” published in 1999.

Increased sharing by Christian communities of the Word of God; eg, in the Australian outback where clergy are scarce.

Production of a video on ecumenism called “Portraits of Unity” (available at the NCCA bookshop).

The value of ecumenical prison ministry (Kairos) and ecumenical hospital chaplaincy is recognised.

Generally there seems a lack of appreciation of what is good in other Faiths. For example, many Catholics’ ignorance that Moslems, Christians and Jews are connected through Abraham and that all believe in the same one true God. (cf Vatican II “The Church and Non Christian Religions 3)


Deep conversation about sharing the Eucharist dominated this group. Is this the last obstacle to ecumenism? There seemed some surprise and some misunderstanding about Catholics taking communion in another Christian ecclesial community, as well as members of other Christian communities being admitted to communion at a Catholic liturgy.

Discussion led to many divergent opinions. What is the nature of the difference between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities as far as the Eucharist is concerned? Is the problem of our division over the Eucharist simply a matter of interpretation or semantics, or is it deeper? With desire for unity among Christians coming from the ground up and the growing awareness of community being strengthened, sometimes people act and share in the Eucharist without realising the deeper implications as to why the Church sees sharing the Eucharist as the sign of full ecclesial communion.

Therefore, for the sake of clarity, it’s worth quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1398-1401.

1398 The Eucharist and the unity of Christians. Before the greatness of this mystery St Augustine exclaims, “O sacrament of devotion! O sign of unity! O bond of charity!” (Sermon 272). The more painful the experience of the divisions in the Church which break the common participation in the table of the Lord, the more urgent are our prayers to the Lord that the time of complete unity among all who believe in him may return.

1399 The Eastern churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church (Orthodox) celebrate the Eucharist with great love. “These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy.” A certain communion in sacris, and so in the Eucharist, “given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but is encouraged.” (Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism [15] and Canon 844 §3 [15])

1400 Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, “have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders.” It is for this reason that, for the Catholic Church, Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible. However these ecclesial communities, when they commemorate the Lord’s death and resurrection in the Holy Supper … profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and await his coming in glory.” (Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism [22])

1401 When, in the Bishop’s judgement, a grave necessity arises, Catholic ministers may give the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who ask for them of their own will, provided they give evidence of holding the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments and possess the required dispositions (Canon 844 §4).

(Bishop Peter Ingham was ordained in 1941 and is currently the Bishop of Wollongong. He is a member of the Bishops’ Committees for Finance, Liturgy, and Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations.)